For fifty years, journalists have trekked to Monroeville, Alabama in search of Harper Lee. Normally, they leave town without even setting eyes on the famous but reclusive author. But in 2001, Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills wrote to Harper Lee's older sister, Alice, whom she eventually met. It was the beginning of a long conversation—which Ms. Mills recounts here in this exclusive essay:
When the Chicago Tribune sent me south on an assignment in 2001 to write about Harper Lee’s hometown, I never imagined the adventure that awaited me. I certainly never imagined that I would meet the author herself. Lee had remained famously, ferociously, private since a few years after her first and only novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960.
We like to think we know which questions have the power to change our lives. What do you want to be when you grow up? Will you marry? Stay in your hometown? You can weigh those decisions, give them the thought they are due. Then everyday questions come along, and they turn out to carry that power, too. That’s the suspense of life, the serendipity. On that August day, my quick answer to my editor’s simple question, “Want to take a trip?” changed the course of my life and work for more than a decade.
After a nearly a week of talking to people around Monroeville, I knocked on the door of the house where the Lee sisters, Alice and Nelle Harper, lived, never expecting it to open. I had written Alice Lee, the then-89-year-old attorney who served as gatekeeper to her sister, known locally as Nelle, to tell her I would be in town and why.
Alice opened not only the front door but the door to their lives as well. Soon, to my even greater surprise, I met Nelle. She arranged to come for a conversation at the Best Western where I was staying. From that meeting, a friendship with both sisters began, as did a years-long conversation about their lives and work.
At first slowly, then with increased gusto, Nelle shaped my own work, and how I viewed their town and the South. To the sisters, it was critical that I first understand their region, that I see them in context. Early on Nelle told me “To understand Southerners, you need to understand their ties to their church and their property.” And so I was off on a different kind of assignment, the Lee sisters’ guide to the South. I attended churches of all kinds in their corner of the Bible Belt, interviewed their friends and family, and took long drives with them through the small towns and rural areas they knew growing up.
My newspaper story ran in 2002 and I was on to other topics, while staying in touch with the sisters. My struggles with lupus made daily reporting increasingly difficult, however, and eventually it became clear I would have to find another way to work. In the fall of 2004, with the sisters’ blessing, I began renting the house next door to theirs to work on what became my memoir, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.
The Lees were ready to share more of their stories. Share them they did, on long country drives, on leisurely afternoons at their home and, with Nelle, often over afternoon coffee at McDonald’s or Burger King. “I know what you can call your book,” Nelle told me over one such coffee at Burger King. She leaned in and stabbed her finger in the air. “’Having Their Say.’ I know they used it with the Delaney Sisters but titles aren’t copyrightable.’” Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years was a bestselling book about two African American sisters reflecting on their lives.
The Lees fascinated me as sisters. Alice was the oldest of four siblings. Nelle was the youngest. Alice was 15 years older than Nelle, as much mother to her as sister. Neither married or had children but in other ways they took very different paths. Alice lived most of her life in their small hometown. Nelle moved to New York as a young woman and stayed, eventually dividing her time between Manhattan and Monroeville. Alice was petite. Nelle wasn't. Alice wore only skirts, even on the week-ends. (Nelle referred to her as “Atticus in a Skirt.”) Nelle made casual pants and shirts her daily uniform. Alice worked at her law office until she was 100 years old. After the success of her novel, Nelle never held a traditional job. The never-ending press of interest in Nelle and the novel, however, was work in itself.
The Lees didn't make big concessions to modern technology and conveniences, either. If a routine worked, they stuck with it. Nelle and I did laundry together at a Laundromat the next town over. The sisters faxed because Alice's hearing made using the phone impossible. But computers were not in the picture. Nelle used a manual typewriter to answer some of the correspondence that still poured into their post office box.
For all the sisters told me about their lives, I learned as much simply from seeing how they lived them: with a passion for books and history, church and community, friendship and family, and very little interest in material things. Television they had little time for, except when it came to football and golf. Their modest red brick house in Monroeville overflowed with books, but when it came to things such as wardrobes and furniture, they found simple things that worked for them and stuck with the same for decades.
How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as the saying goes, and it was illuminating to see how they went about their day to day life in Monroeville. Both Nelle and Alice spent their time on books and friends, and, when it came to money, you would never know Nelle’s novel had brought her wealth. They did donate, quietly and generously, to church and education funds and various charities.
I am so much richer for my time with them. Spending time with these fascinating, intelligent, witty women was a lesson in living life on your own terms. They valued words far more than wealth--and their daily lives reflected that.
I’m reminded of a story Alice told me. When Nelle was studying in England in the 1940s, one of the Oxford boys she knew was going to London because he had a letter of introduction to a member of Parliament. “Something had happened that his girl couldn’t go,” Alice said, “and he asked Nelle Harper if she’d like to go. And she went. I think maybe they bicycled all the way in but, you know, it’s not far. And they were having tea on the terrace and this man who was hosting them excused himself from the table for a short time and returned with somebody.” Alice paused and looked at me with the relish of a cook about to serve a delicious dish. “And that somebody was Winston Churchill.” She continued, “Nelle Harper was so shocked and so overcome she couldn’t remember what she said. . . . Nelle Harper’s letter back home [to us] said, ‘Today I met history. I met history itself.’
When I think of my time with the Lees in Monroeville, I feel the same way.
-- Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee
(Photo credit: Chris Popio)